Changing wheels during the record attempt


This summer (21st July 2015) Pendine Sands was once again the running location of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Sunbeam 350hp Bluebird. Driven by his grandson, the drive recreated its record breaking run of 1925. The Bluebird set three land speed records: 133.75mph in 1922 driven by Kenelm Lee Guinness; 146.16mph in 1924 by Campbell; and 150.76 mph in 1925 by Campbell. Altogether, Campbell broke nine land speed records between 1924 and 1935. He set the water speed record four times, his highest speed being 141.740 mph in 1939. Campbell also competed in the Grand Prix: winning the 1927 and 1928 Grand Prix de Boulogne in France driving a Bugatti T37A.

Portrait of Sir Malcolm Campbell: holding the record for 301.13 mph for one mile average land speed, obtained in 1935
Sir Malcolm Campbell: 301,13 mph for one mile

Malcolm Campbell was born in Chislehurst in 1885; as the only son of diamond seller William Campbell, he was to follow into the business. It was whilst learning the diamond trade in Germany that he became interested in motorbikes and races. Returning to England, he worked for three years at Lloyd’s of London. His real passion however was motorbike racing; he won all three London to Lakes End Trials from 1906 to 1908. Then, in 1910, he began racing cars at Brooklands. From the first he would paint his cars in their distinctive blue livery and call them Bluebird, inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s play of that name.

During the First World War he served with the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and in the Royal Flying Corps. He stood as a Conservative candidate for Parliament at the 1935 general election, without success. During the late 1930’s he commanded the Provost Company of the 56th (London) Division, Territorial Army. Then from 1940 to 1942 he commanded the Military Police contingent of the Coats Mission to evacuate King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and their immediate family in the event of German invasion. When he died in 1948 it was of natural causes: he was one of the few land speed record holders of his era not to die in a crash.

The Bluebird car used in 1925 and 2015 was conceived by Sunbeam’s chief engineer and racing team manager Louis Coatalen. It was constructed at the company’s works in Wolverhampton during 1919 and 1920. The car was fitted with a purpose built 18.322-litre V12 engine based on a hybrid of the Sunbeam Manitou and Sunbeam Arab aero-engines, a type used on naval seaplanes. Therefore, the car combined automotive and aeronautical expertise.

The engine had four blocks of three cylinders arranged in two banks set at 60 degrees. Each cylinder had one inlet and two exhaust valves actuated by a single overhead camshaft. The two camshafts were driven by a complex set of 16 gears from the front of the crankshaft. A 4-speed transmission initially drove a back axle differential with a shaft drive rather than the hazardous chains of other cars. Harry Hawker drove the car in 1920 at Brooklands but suffered a burst tyre, spinning off the circuit. The differential was then replaced with a simple crown wheel and pinion so that the rear wheels were locked together. A foot brake acted on the transmission and a hand brake on the rear drums. Suspension consisted of half-elliptic springs all round damped by Andre Hartford friction shock absorbers.

Campbell purchased the car from Coatalen. Over the winter of 1923–1924 the car was sent to the aircraft maker Boulton Paul at Norwich, for wind tunnel tests. They streamlined Bluebird with a narrow radiator cowl at the nose and a long tapered tail. The rear wheels were also fitted with disk covers. Engine compression was raised by new pistons. Following these modifications Campbell attempted a record breaking speed at Fanø but on the first run both rear tyres were ripped off and narrowly missed the crowd. Campbell protested to the officials and declined to take any responsibility for anything else; a front tyre then came off and killed a boy.

The car was then taken to Pendine Sands and the record was achieved on 24 September 1924, with a speed of 146.16 mph (235.23 km/h) and an officially sanctioned time (several of Campbell’s earlier record breaking times had not been officially sanctioned). After this he put the car up for sale for £1,500 but then decided to keep it. Bluebird returned to Pendine and on 21 July 1925 it became the first car to exceeded 150 mph. In 1927 Campbell set a new record at Pendine of 174.883 mph in his Napier-Campbell Bluebird. He set his final land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935, when he was the first person to drive an automobile over 300 mph, averaging 301.337 mph in two passes in another Bluebird.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


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